Plantation workers in Kerala's Gavi stare at an uncertain future

The estate’s lease is to expire in 7 months, and the proposal for their rehabilitation is yet to get the government's approval.
The dilapidated labour lane of KFDC plantation in Gavi
The dilapidated labour lane of KFDC plantation in GaviPhoto | Express

KOCHI: Around 168 labourers at the Kerala Forest Development Corporation (KFDC) plantation in Gavi, in Pathanamthitta district, are staring at an uncertain future as the lease period of the plantation is set to expire in seven months. To make matters worse, the proposal for the rehabilitation of workers is yet to get government approval.

Even if the government extends the lease period, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) is unlikely to accord sanction to continue with cardamom cultivation in Gavi as it is a reserve forest contiguous to the core of the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

The tiger sub plan approved by the National Tiger Conservation Authority has stipulated that Gavi should be freed of human habitation to enable the conservation of wildlife ecology. The workers and trade unions in Gavi have been urging KFDC to provide a package for rehabilitation as they are unable to sustain their lives in hostile surroundings. KFDC will not be able to cultivate cardamom after the expiry of the lease agreement as the central law does not allow cultivation of cash crops in reserve forests.

“During my term as the managing director of KFDC, I had moved a proposal for rehabilitation of workers. The Centre has already said that it will consider allocating fund for rehabilitation of workers under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). The workers are ready to go but the state government has not accepted the proposal,” said former principal chief conservator of forest Prakriti Srivastava.

The condition of the labourers is pathetic. They are living in dilapidated labour lanes and there is no hygiene. I had also proposed skill-based training for the family members of the labourers which would have helped them to improve income and sustain their lives,” she added.

Thankappan, Valliyamma
and Kasi, residents of the labour lane
Thankappan, Valliyamma and Kasi, residents of the labour lanePhoto | Express

“There is no basic amenity in the labour lanes and the plantation is located 25 km away from Vandiperiyar, which is the closest village. The forest department has provided a vehicle to transport students to the school which is located 30km away. But the road passes through dense forest and we are always concerned about the safety of the children. The nearest hospital is 30km away and there is a ban on night traffic which makes shifting of people to hospital risky. We have been pleading with the government for years seeking a rehabilitation plan,” said Punyaraj, a plantation worker.

“Earlier we used to get work for 12 months. But now the corporation has abandoned the eucalyptus plantation. We have work only for nine months in the cardamom plantation and it is hard for us in summer as there are no jobs or wages. We get a daily wage of Rs 508 for 26 days a month. The eco-tourism project has helped to sustain our life,” said Thankappan, another worker.

“We have to go to Vandiperiyar to purchase groceries and there is only one KSRTC trip a day. We are forced to hire private vehicles at exorbitant rates for daily commutation. I am 90-years-old and I have not received my welfare pension for seven months,” complained Valliyamma, an original Sri Lankan repatriate.

As per the proposal submitted by the KFDC, the families will be provided Rs 15 lakh each for relocating from the Gavi plantation. The division has a labour force of 168 permanent workers and 76 casual labourers. Almost all of the permanent workers are in the age group of 40-58 years and the casual labourers are in the age group of 18-40 years.

There are also 222 dependants of the labourers in the colony. As per the proposal, each permanent employee will get an ex gratia equal to three months' salary for every remaining year of service. Gratuity will be provided at the rate of Rs 15,000 per year for an average of 25 years of service. The total rehabilitation package is for Rs 29 crore.

Meanwhile, KFDC managing director Georgi P Mathachen said the rehabilitation has been delayed as it was not fitting the criteria for Rebuild Kerala Scheme.

“We are trying to get central funds from NTCA and CAMPA for the rehabilitation of the workers in Gavi. The restriction on allocation of funds from KIIFB is another reason. There is no dispute as the workers are willing to relocate. There is no problem in continuing the cardamom cultivation in Gavi as the government will extend the lease. The plantation will not be closed and the workers will not lose their jobs,” he said.

Gavi plantation

Total area: 1,024.384 hectares

Cardamom plantation:

841 hectares

Coffee plantation: 72 hectares

Settlement of Sri Lankan repatriates: 1979-83

Permanent workers: 168

Casual labourers: 76

Dependants: 222

Relocation package

Rs 15L per family under Rebuild Kerala Development Programme

Adult children of each family will be considered as separate family and they will also get E15 lakh

Rs 25,000 for skill development

Ex gratia: Three months salary for every remaining year of service

Gratuity: Rs 15,000 per year for an average of 25-year service

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